Though the organizer of Sunday’s far-right rally in Berkeley has called off the event, attendees seem unlikely to heed her request — and counter-protesters are certainly not scrapping their plans.
After sending out a letter Friday evening asking others to avoid Civic Center Park, organizer Amber Cummings took a step further and canceled the “No to Marxism in America” event listing on Facebook, where hundreds had said they planned to come to the park, from 1-5 p.m. Associated organizer Ansen Hatcher suggested people go “observe” Cummings hold a one-person “rally” at the park instead.
Thousands of people had been planning to gather in different parts of Berkeley to protest the far-right rally, and most seem undeterred by reports of the cancellation. Some say they believe right-wing and white nationalist views will still be on full display, and others say they want to send a message regardless.
But what is the most powerful message to send? In Berkeley, views have long diverged significantly on the best way to respond to the rally. Fight back? Ignore the protests? Hold peaceful counter-demonstrations nearby? Put a poster up in the window and stay as far away as possible?
Some planned reactions are a bit more creative, from setting up an “empathy tent,” to decorating the park, to encircling the space and singing.
The city of Berkeley decided a good way to declare opposition to the right-wing rally was to print 20,000 “Berkeley stands united against hate” posters, and distribute them among different sites so residents could pick them up and hang them at home.
By Friday afternoon, most locations were completely out or “down to scraps,” according to Jacquelyn McCormick, the mayor’s senior advisor.
Resident Margy Wilkinson stood outside the entrance to Ashby BART on Friday evening to hand out the posters. She said the reaction was stronger than she expected.
“Oh my god!” Wilkinson wrote in an email to McCormick. “Tony and I distributed all we had (over 100) at the Ashby BART station between 5:00 & 6:00 today. We could not hand them out fast enough.… It was just exhilarating.”
Friday evening, Yvette Felarca — a Berkeley middle school teacher and a national organizer for By Any Means Necessary who is facing criminal charges related to her opposition to a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento last year — called a press conference to announce that her group still plans to mobilize this weekend against “the alt-right and the Nazis.” She called on her supporters and others to show up in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park at 10 a.m. Sunday to “shut them down.” Other anti-fascist, or antifa, groups, along with other community members, have said they plan to march to the site of the rally from Ohlone Park on Sunday morning.
Numerous citizen, union and educational groups have their own plans about how to speak out against the racism and hatred they say is central to the rally organizers’ message.
“No one messes with a party that has a bouncy castle”
Roberto Santiago, creator of the popular Facebook group “Your Mom is so Berkeley,” known for its affectionate parodies of Berkeleyans, had the idea of trying to obtain a permit for an event in the same Civic Center Park location, effectively preventing the far-right protest. When he had the thought in mid-August, no one had requested a permit. Comments made by Mayor Jesse Arreguín about the lack of a permit applications made Santiago suspect the mayor was nudging counter-groups to put plans in motion, Santiago said.
On Aug. 15, Santiago wrote on his group’s Facebook page: “SERIOUS QUESTION: The mayor says no permit has been requested for Civic Center Park on 8/27. The permit costs around $550 including deposit. Is anyone interested in getting a permit and not allowing the Nazis to use the space? I am soliciting money here. I can’t afford it on my own.”
A number of people expressed enthusiasm about his idea and put forth colorful suggestions for the event, such as setting up a bounce house since “no one messes with a party that has a bouncy castle.” Another suggested filling the whole park with water balloons. Others suggested speakers, music and arts and crafts.
“We called it the ‘Berkeley Moms Day of Peace in Action,'” wrote Santiago. “The goal was to ignore the invaders right to their faces. If you have a permit for an event, other groups can’t come and disrupt your permitted event. Sure, anyone can attend because it’s at the park, but they can’t cause trouble… If you rent a picnic area at Tilden, people can’t come through with [swastika] flags knocking over your condiments.”
But Santiago’s permit was denied, as were those of Cummings and one other. All three were denied for failure to follow city protocol, in part by submitting applications fewer than 10 business days before the events.
The Berkeley City Council recently gave the city manager’s office the authority to issue temporary rules for large public events, but only if the organizers do not hold permits. The city released the rules, including prohibitions on a number of items that could be used as weapons, Friday evening.
Police are restricting bricks, rocks, axes, mace, knives, firearms, dynamite and torches in a defined area of Berkeley bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the west, Oxford Street to the east, Bancroft Way and Channing Way to the south, and University Avenue to the north, according to a police Nixle alert.
“Additionally, in Civic Center Park on Sunday, August 27, signs and flags must be held by hand, and may not be affixed to any pole or stick,” the Nixle alert stated.”Wearing of a mask, scarf, bandana or any other accessory or item that covers or partially covers the face and shields the wearer’s face from view, or partially from view, is prohibited in Civic Center Park on August 27, except for coverings worn due to religious beliefs, practices or observances.”
Santiago said he was disappointed he was not notified sooner that his application had been denied so he could appeal the decision. Regardless, Santiago and his group are pressing forward.
In a new post Thursday, he wrote, “If you are interested in decorating the park (lawn chalk, sidewalk chalk, etc) the day/night before (8/26), let’s start planning that.”
On Saturday morning, Santiago said he was skeptical that no one on the right will show up to protest in the park.
The group tweeted, “Your Mom is So Berkeley…she doesn’t believe anything is ‘cancelled’ and she’s still showing up the next couple days.”
While one of the most inventive, “Your Mom is So Berkeley” is hardly the only group organizing a counter-event in reaction to Sunday’s rally.
The response by Berkeleyans this month has been much larger and more diverse than in the past, in large part because a white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, early this month culminated with the killing of a counter-protester.
The largest counter-event scheduled is the Bay Area Rally Against Hate, planned for Crescent lawn on Oxford Street from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. As of Saturday, 3,100 people were listed as attending on the Facebook event page, with another 7,000 showing interest.
Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, one of the many labor and socialist groups organizing the Rally Against Hate, said the event is not meant to be a “warm-up” for Civic Center Park. “It is specifically available as an alternative space for families, students and teachers,” she said.
Although there was some skepticism at first, more people have embraced the counter-rally after observing a massive peaceful counter-demonstration that confronted a right-wing rally Boston, she said. About 150 people showed up to a safety training held by the organizers, and they will work as medics and safety marshals at Crescent lawn, Campbell said.
On Saturday, Campbell said, “Nothing has changed with our event except that we expect even more people to attend.”
Additionally, another group, Showing up for Racial Justice, plans to hold a march, along with others, to Civic Center Park where Amber Cummings said she will hold a one-woman rally.
University of California police sent a “stay away advisory” Saturday morning recommending that people avoid the gathering on the West Crescent lawn.
“For the security and well-being of our campus community, UCPD is advising our students, staff, faculty and community members to avoid this area if possible, due to the potential for conflict and unlawful activity,” said UCPD.
Berkeley officials have set up concrete barriers around the crescent area to reduce the risk of a car running into pedestrians.
Yes to Marxism — Groucho Marx-ism that is!
Some jokesters who want to send their own political message have intentionally misinterpreted the rally organizers’ stated purpose to combat Marxism.
“Several dozen Berkeley residents are gathering to say yes to Marxism — Groucho Marx-ism that is!” wrote Nicole Freeling in an email to Berkeleyside. Attendees will wear Groucho glasses and hold signs with quotes of his.
Today, Saturday, progressive religious groups are holding an interfaith event in Civic Center Park from 3-4:30 p.m., “to create sacred space at the location where neo-Nazis plan to rally the following day.”
Rallies affecting local businesses and transit
While groups of all kinds descend on downtown Berkeley and the park, some local businesses and institutions will halt programming. AC Transit is detouring buses away from downtown from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., according to a bulletin. Areas north of Ashby Avenue, south of Rose/Hopkins streets, east of Sacramento Street, and west of College Avenue will not be served during this time. (Click here for more details.) BART will be running longer trains, however, according to a tweet put out by BART Board President Rebecca Saltzman.
The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will shut down for the day Sunday, and is reimbursing any movie ticket-holders.
“This decision has been made at the recommendation of UC Berkeley public safety officials and reflects BAMPFA’s commitment to ensuring the safety of its visitors, staff, and students,” according to a media release from the museum.
The downtown Berkeley YMCA will close early on Sunday, at 11:30 a.m., “to add the City’s efforts and ensure safety of our staff and members.”
Street parking will be restricted around Civic Center Park, too.
The city initially told residents to avoid all events in the area Sunday to prevent counter-protesters from diverting police and resources away from the “No to Marxism” rally. On Wednesday, however, in a Facebook post, Arreguín encouraged people to attend the Crescent lawn “Rally Against Hate.”
“I again want to urge people not to come to Civic Center Park,” he wrote. “While I understand people’s strong desire to speak out against racism, bigotry and white supremacism, past alt-right rallies in the park have resulted in violence and we do not want people to be in a dangerous situation.”